Today was our free day in Guangzhou! As the PolyU professors put it, we “earned” this free day after our hard work the past two days making orthotics. (Really, I think it was just built into the schedule as a buffer day in case we royally screwed up!) While we all enjoyed learning the orthotics fabrication process, I don’t think any of us were very sad to be leaving the hospital where we’ve been working. The P&O lab there is in the basement (literally off to the side of the underground parking garage) and nearly windowless. Today represented a good way to vary our scenery, to say the least!
After a 10am call, Henok and Natalie led us through our options for sightseeing during the day. The top choice (Chimelong Safari Park + Circus) was unfortunately out of our student budget, so we decided to visit the architecturally-rich Shamian Island (free) and take the more reasonable 48 yuan per person Pearl River night cruise, which would give us nice views of Guangzhou’s skyline.
We decided on a 1pm departure from our hotel, and two subway rides later (amounting to a whopping 17 subway stops), we found ourselves in the area of Shamian Island.
(Sidenote: While the streets may be somewhat trash-strewn and dirty, China clearly knows how to maintain its underground subway stations. As the picture below shows, they are immaculate!)
After staying so far away in the outskirts Guangzhou, emerging from the subway here gave us our first glimpse of just how bustling the city is at its center. For background, Guangzhou is China’s third largest behind Beijing and Shanghai, with a population of over 13 million in the city and 44 million in the greater Pearl River Delta region.
Shamian Island is a small (0.3km^2) island in the Pearl River, China’s second largest river by volume that runs through Guangzhou. A short foot bridge over a small canal led us from mainland Guangzhou to the island, where we were greeted by a number of old Western-style buildings and mansions. As we walked around the island, we noticed that this trend of grand (albeit often dilapidated) Western buildings continued, and there were even statues embodying the “East meets West” spirit scattered around. It turns out that Shamian Island was given by the Qing government to the French and British in 1859 after the Second Opium War. Later, trading companies from various Europeans countries built mansions on the island, which remain today as a reminder of China’s European colonial period.
After our initial walk of the island, we headed for lunch. In what has now become standard practice, we let Harvey and Jessica (our resident Mandarin speakers) choose a number of dishes, both “safe” and exotic, for us to share family-style. Today’s new food adventure included frog meat! See the collage of food pictures below (courtesy of Jessica).
After lunch, we proceeded to explore the island more by foot. We passed more historic buildings as well as a few more surprising sights: a church (a rare sight in communist China and another remnant of the Western influence on Shamian Island), a few beautiful wedding shoots, military policemen training on old gymnastics equipment, and a promenade along the Pearl River, from which we were surprised to see a couple brave souls swimming in the vast river. See pictures below.
Finally, in what was probably the highlight of the day, our crew took over the giant checkers/chess board in the middle of the island and played an intense game of human checkers! Our diverse group (particularly by Chinese standards) already attracts numerous stares and unsolicited photos wherever we go; in playing this game, it’s safe to say that we attracted quite a crowd of onlookers. It was good, healthy Penn competition at play, and as both teams had a few players remaining by the time we had to leave, I deem this game a tie. 😉
Thoroughly energized from checkers, we headed (via subway again) to the area along the Pearl River from which the river cruises depart. There, we set off for our one hour night cruise just as dusk was setting in. The cruise headed east, under one of Guangzhou’s notable bridges (the Haiyin Bridge) and towards its city center skyline. By the time we had hit the city center and were turning around to head back to the starting point, the night sky was dark, allowing for some good photos of Guangzhou’s bright lights. The skyline may not have been as beautiful as Hong Kong’s harbor skyline, but it was striking nonetheless at night, and was punctuated by the Canton Tower, the third tallest tower in the world that is rainbow-lit at night.
Following the cruise, we headed back to the hotel, where we ended our day by splitting off for dinner. As this was our fourth night in hotel, we were comfortable with the area. Some went to casual sit down restaurants, while others were satisfied with a quick 7/11 stop.
Overall today was a wonderful day for cultural exploration, which is a very important side benefit of this trip. As with any new country and culture, some aspects are remarkable (such as the food and subway stations), while others are not (the way people who look “different” are often objectified). Just today, outside the church, a lady asked to take a picture of Lia (with her blonde hair and blue eyes) and then asked to add me to the picture too. She reportedly exclaimed in Chinese, “how beautiful, a white one and a black one!” Umm, okay… On the other hand, I was impressed today when a brave high school student asked to practice her (honestly very basic) English with me and a group of friends on the subway. I guess the cultural boldness can go two ways!
Tomorrow we have a day of travel back to Jieyang where we’ll deliver the orthotics we made for the kids. For today, the last thing to do is send a shout out to our WashU friends Jessica and Rose who were wonderful additions to our trip today. Rose, in particular, is fluent in Mandarin and was a huge help when it came to ordering food, buying subway and river cruise tickets, and translating any and all of our questions. Thanks Rose and Jessica!